As far as U.S fans are concerned, Boris Becker and Pete Sampras had a stealth rivalry. While they played 19 times, with Sampras winning 12 of those matches, all but two took place in Europe. And most were during the fall indoor season, which is the least-watched part of the year in the States. Make no mistake, though, these two put on some of the epic wars of the 1990s, a couple of which, had they gone down on Centre Court, would likely be in the discussion for the greatest match in tennis history.
Boom Boom and Pistol Pete—wow, that was a violent decade in men’s tennis (I personally preferred one of Becker’s other nicknames: Baron von Slam)—raised each other’s games in the process, to the point where they virtually perfected attacking indoor tennis. The pinnacle of this style, and of their rivalry, came in the match highlighted above, the final of the 1996 ATP World Championship in Hannover, Germany. This was a rubber match of sorts: Sampras had won the season-ending event, now known as the Masters Cup, in 1991 and ’94; Becker had won it in 1992 and ’95. The German had won their round-robin match earlier in the week, but as in ’94, Sampras would turn the tables on him in the one that counted the most. Here a few thoughts upon seeing it again:
—I watched this match during the day in an Irish bar on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I worked in a Christian bookstore around the corner—I’m not religious, but I needed a job—and would walk in now and then and ask the bartender if he’d put “the tennis” on for me. After a while, he started changing the channel once he saw me walk in the door. This match kept going . . . and . . . going . . . and going . . . and I had to go back to work (not that we had any customers; the only thing waiting for me back in the store was a St. Thomas Aquinas tome). On this day I ducked back in to the bar whenever I could, then finally just stayed for the fifth set.
—It looks like a quick court. Those orange-pink Euro indoor courts seemed ugly then, but now look pretty cool. True of everything, right? Except, as we proved the other day, the mullet.
—Becker is swinging his arms in a bigger arc before his serve than he did in 1985. He really gets them pumping. But it’s a beautiful service motion. I got the knee bend in my own serve from him. Only problem is, Sampras has an even more beautiful, and looser, motion. This match was, if nothing else, a serving exhibition, and worth watching just for that.
—Becker is much calmer then he was in ’85. Unlike McEnroe and Connors and even Nadal, he changed a lot over the years. No quick-leg strut, no stare down, not even a fist-pump that I can remember. The arrogance seems mostly gone. You can see it in his ascetic buzz haircut, as if he’s atoning for earlier sins of vanity.
—Like I said, just as Federer-Nadal Wimbledon 2008 was the perfection of power-baseline tennis—or at least the poeticization (is that a word?) of it—this was the perfection of all-court power-attack tennis: men’s tennis. These guys had everything going, without a single wasted motion in their strokes or their movement. Of course these are highlights, so the mishits are left out. But how many matches can produce 9 full minutes of shots this spectacular?
—How many lines can these guys hit? Even from the baseline, they’re nailing them.
—Sampras is showing a better service return than I remember.
—Becker is faster than I remember.
—Their games are remarkably similar, as if they had started to resemble each other over the years.
—Becker shows a wide variety of game, and some stuff I’d forgotten he could do. The heavy one-handed backhand, the little deception on a backhand pass that freezes Sampras in the middle of the court, the smoothness in his transition game. He should have won more Slams.
—Or maybe he shouldn’t. You can see in the fifth set why Sampras was the guy who won 14 majors. After botching the fourth-set tiebreaker by sailing a volley long, he comes out and wins the fifth set anyway, not unlike Nadal at Wimbledon this year.
—Pete with an awkward celebration when he breaks in the fifth. Becker looking like he just doesn’t believe he can beat Sampras. Afterward, he would say that he thought Pete was the “finest player ever.” Also afterward, Sampras would say how special the moment had been. Before the match, the two of them had walked through the stands onto the court, with the audience roaring. Sampras said he’d never forget that.
—Good tennis, bad style. This was Sampras’ Bermuda-short era (can he really be considered the best when he was wearing those?). Is Becker wearing a sweater-vest, or, worse, a shirt that’s designed to look like a sweater vest?
—The last rally was the longest of the match. Of course Sampras won it.
—Both are spent at the end, but have enough to show their mutual respect.
—Sampras: 3-6 7-6(5) 7-6(4) 6-7(11) 6-4. If it wasn’t the best match ever, it may have had the best scoreline.
The last time we saw Steffi Graf was in 1992. Here she is seven years later, in the 1999 Wimbledon quarterfinals, still fighting for majors at age 30 against the new teen generation, represented by the still-ascending Venus Williams. Graf didn’t just play for 15 years, she was relentless for 15 years. It makes sense that almost immediately after this tournament, she realized that she didn’t have the same desire she had always had and pulled the plug on her career. Graf was all business; a farewell tour wouldn’t have been her style.
—This isn’t an ideal clip, of course. There’s static at the bottom of the screen and it fades out in the middle of a point, so we never see the end. Think of it as a small window on an historic moment: Steffi vs. Venus, the Wimbledon queen of the 1980s and 90s vs. the Wimbledon queen of the next decade. One this day, though, the guard didn’t quite change.
—Steffi and Venus are well-matched: speedy, leggy, a little haughty, wielding strong serves and harsh forehands that they hit late, and which rely on athleticism rather than sparkling technique.
—For some reason, I listened to this match on the radio at the time. It sounded fierce back then, but now I sense a rushed, antic quality to the match, as if neither player wants to think too much about how desperately she wants to win.
—Venus is not intimidated by Graf, just as her little sister hadn’t been when she’d beaten the German a few months earlier in Key Biscayne (see the end of that match here). Like Graf 15 years before, both of the Williamses thought they should beat everyone right from the beginning of their careers. That's a little crazy, but that's a champion.
—Graf is at the net and volleying well. How does she pull off those little crosscourt backhand stabs? I didn’t know that was in her arsenal.
—Venus isn’t as rail-thin as she is now, and I don’t think she’s hitting the ball as hard.
—Gazelle-like athleticism overcoming less-than-perfectly-smooth technique. The combination makes the points seem extremely urgent. Each player moves forward as soon as possible. Graf in particular wants to take control of these rallies even earlier than usual.
—There’s one moment of doubt on Venus’s face at 2-2, after she stones a volley long. It’s enough to get her broken.
—The grass seems to be worse around the baselines than it is today. This has to be affecting the way they approach these points. They can’t sit back and wait for the ball to come to them. Both Graf and Williams are bending forward to hit their shots and scrambling to get their feet into the best position they can.
—The Graf moment: 2-2, break point, she hits a running forehand crosscourt from the middle of her baseline, all the way over to the meeting point of the sideline and the service line on Venus’ side. Who else, besides Roger Federer, could improvise that angle while moving that quickly? Then she knocks off a forehand up the line for a winner and the break.
—This was the 901st, and next to last, win of Graf's career. She would lose in the final to Lindsay Davenport and retire. Venus was unhappy that she’d lost, but she would win her first of five Wimbledons the next year, over Davenport.
—Graf and Williams, two of the most indomitable players in tennis history, had faced off four times before and split those matches 2-2. Graf took a 3-2 lead with this win at Wimbledon. She never gave Venus a chance to even the score.
Some champions hang on to their racquets too long. Others know just when to hang them up. Graf had fought off the future for this day, and that was enough.